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Imprisoned Art: Destiny of an Art Collection

  • art collection, museum storage
  • art collection, museum storage
  • art collection, museum storage
  • art collection, museum storage
  • art collection, museum storage
April 16, 2015

Starting from the period of the late 1930’s and the Nazi era, when the massive art collection looting has started, a vast number of artworks had been stolen and confiscated from the previous owners who mostly ended tragically in the Holocaust of the WWII. Some of the stolen artworks were intended for the art collections of Nazi officials, and others were meant to end up on the display and in the museum storage of the Hitler’s planned museum in Linz. Though the Allied guideline called for the restitution of stolen and, in some cases, hidden artworks to the pre-War owners, a countless number of artworks were not returned. From the 1990’s the unresolved issue of unrestituted art re-emerged.

art collection, museum storage
Paul Gauguin – Tahitian woman, 1989

In-between the Museum Storage and Private Art Collection

Our story begins in Paris in 1935, when a young Serbian Jew Erich Slomovic became a protégé of famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Under the supervision of Ambroise Vollard, Slomovic managed, over the period of five years, to create a stunning art collection of about 600 artworks. The art collection was not great only in number, but also in its quality. It consists out of the artworks from Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Bonnard and others. When the WWII broke out, Ambroise Vollard already tragically died in a car accident and it was up to Slomovic to save the art collection from Nazi regime. He placed about 190 artworks into a bank vault in France, and he packed up the rest of collection and managed to get the art collection safely to Belgrade. Erich Slomovic was killed in 1943 by Nazis and in 1949, the art collection rests in the museum storage of the National Museum in Belgrade.

art collection, museum storage
Left: Erich Slomovic / Right: Ambroise Vollard

The Lawsuit and the Status Quo

At the beginning of the 1980’s, the French bank, where the part of the Vollard-Slomovic art collection was hidden, announced the auction of the vault’s content due to the nonpayment of fees. The sale of the part of art collection was estimated at $30,000,000 but both Slomovic’s and Vollard’s distant relatives were trying to block the sale which ended up in a mutual lawsuit. It was finally sold in 2010 on Sotheby’s auction. The part of the art collection in Belgrade’s museum storage is estimated as twice as valuable and superior in quality to the one hidden in the French bank, and the price can even get higher, since the interest for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art has grew over a few past years.

art collection, museum storage
Left: Andre Lhote – Female Portrait, 1925 / Right: Pablo Picasso Female Head, 1909

The Restitution Law and Its Complexity

After the Second World War, instead of restituting the Jewish property, taken over by the Nazi regime, Yugoslav Communist Party nationalized it. When the Democracy was introduced in Serbia, at the beginning of this century, instead of finally giving back the property to its legal, pre-war, owners, it was mostly sold to the highest bidders. The new restitution law in Serbia states that every person in Serbia’s Jewish community will be awarded with equal share of the total value of pre-war Jewish abandoned property. If the Slomovic collection falls in the abandoned category, it will probably be sold to fund the restitution. There is still a chance for this art collection, buried in the museum storage, to avoid this scenario, if the, either Slomovic’s or Vollard’s, distant relatives manage to prove that the art collection was not abandoned.

art collection, museum storage
Left: Claude Monet – Cathedral de Ruan, 1892 / Right: Edgar Degas – After the Bath, 1887-90
art collection, museum storage
Andre Derain – Arbres a Collioure, 1905

The Museum Storage As a Sad Reality

While the legal battles are being fought over the ownership of this art collection, it still resides in the museum storage of Serbia’s National museum which is closed for the renovations since 2003. No one can tell with a certainty when it will be opened again for the visitors, neither if we will be available to able to see Slomovic collection once it is re-opened. As it is said by the curators of the museum, the artworks are waiting for better days in a good condition and under the constant supervision of the Conservation department.

Read more about art collections in our Collector’s Tip section.

To find out where and when you will be able to enjoy the artworks from Slomovic collection , stay tuned with My Widewalls.

art collection, museum storage
National Musem under reconstruction, Belgrade

All images are for illustrative purposes only.